ThesisPDF Available

When Pressing Buttons Becomes Emotional: How Games Can Uniquely Evoke Emotions



Evoking emotions is a staple in the entertainment industry and art in general. The different media have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to evoking emotions, yet it seems that games still rely on established methods from movies and novels. I’ve analyzed what is unique to games, and then looked at what other discussions on evoking emotion in games focus on. The unique aspects of games are rarely in focus, so I’ve analyzed 38 different single player games to come up with a list of 5 tools that can be used to evoke emotion, unique to the games medium. I have analyzed successful and failed uses of the concepts, so that designers know what to look out for and how to best use them. I have analyzed two successful games when it comes to evoking emotion. These tools help us understand why those games worked, and can be used to create similarly powerful experiences in the future, that could not have been achieved with other media.
When Pressing Buttons Becomes
How Games Can Uniquely Evoke Emotions
Researcher: Astrid Knappmann
Supervisor: Espen Aarseth
School: IT University of Copenhagen
Astrid Knappmann
Table of Contents
Abstract 3
Introduction 3
What sets games apart from film? 4
Evoking emotions in games 6
What unique tools exist? 9
Transfer of Identity 9
Dramatic Agency 13
Simulated Actions 18
Interactive Discomfort 22
Challenge 28
How are they used? 33
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons 33
What Remains of Edith Finch 36
Conclusion 39
Area for further investigation 41
References 42
Ludography 42
Filmography 44
Bibliography 45
Astrid Knappmann
Evoking emotions is a staple in the entertainment industry and art in general. The different
media have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to evoking emotions, yet it
seems that games still rely on established methods from movies and novels. I’ve analyzed
what is unique to games, and then looked at what other discussions on evoking emotion in
games focus on. The unique aspects of games are rarely in focus, so I’ve analyzed 38
different single player games to come up with a list of 5 tools that can be used to evoke
emotion, unique to the games medium. I have analyzed successful and failed uses of the
concepts, so that designers know what to look out for and how to best use them. I have
analyzed two successful games when it comes to evoking emotion. These tools help us
understand why those games worked, and can be used to create similarly powerful
experiences in the future, that could not have been achieved with other media.
Video games as a medium has evolved a lot since its conception. They have gone to wildly
different ends of the potential video games have, from the tense almost action movie single
player experience of the Call of Duty series (2003-), to the relaxing experience of FarmVille
Video games are an evolving medium, and the potential is still being explored. There’s
heated discussions about whether games classify as art or not (Deardorff, 2015. Sharp,
2015. Jones, 2012.). I will not go into details about what art is, but the Oxford dictionary
describes it as a work to be appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotional power. What I
will focus on is the emotional power of games, as I believe games are not playing to their
strengths often when it comes to delivering strong emotional experiences. I believe part of
the reason for this is that game developers look to more established mediums, such as film
and books and then copy their methods of evoking powerful emotions. Players play games
for the experience (Lazzaro, 2004), and games have the ability to simulate emotions in a
form closer to real life than films (Grodal, 2000). With this in mind, games should have the
potential to have strong emotional power without or in conjunction with conventional means
of evoking emotions. I want to explore the potential of games to evoke emotions and how it
can be done differently than movies or novels.
I will look at various research of evoking emotions in games and how games differentiate
from film when it comes to evoking emotions, to better understand where the strengths of the
games medium lies. Then I will come up with several different tools that are unique to
games, that can be used to effectively evoke emotions and create powerful experiences for
the player. Lastly I will look at two games known for their emotional impact that are using
some of these techniques to better understand how these games achieved their emotional
power, by analyzing how and which of the tools have been used.
Astrid Knappmann
What sets games apart from film?
To answer this question, I need a definition of what a game is. This is something that is sadly
not as simple as it should be. Many have come up with different takes on how to define what
a game is, but I won't spend time on that as it is not the focus of this thesis. This is not going
to be an expansive analysis of every single thing a game can do differently, my aim is to
identify some general tools that can be used in mainstream games. So for the sake of this
thesis, my definition of a game will be something that can be described as a digital
interactive single player experience.
I’m only going to look at the main differences between games and film worth noting in this
context. I have left my classification of games very open, so it is entirely possible to make
games that have nothing in common, outside of being interactive in some way. So the things
I will list here will be common attributes of many games, rather than set in stone attributes.
Dramatic agency
The avatar is often used as a means of getting the player into the game world. There can be
several avatars and they can be used in different ways, but what they have in common is
that they serve as the prosthetic extension of the player. Swink (2008) compares the avatar
to driving a car, which he writes is experienced as an extension of his body. In his book
Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation
, (2008) he thinks back on the
time he learned how to drive, and realized how the sensation became similar to how playing
a game felt once he got the hang of it:
“After a while, I began to develop a sense of how far the car extended around me
in each direction. I could gauge how close I could drive to other cars and whether
or not my car would fit into the parking space in front of Galactican. To do this, I
relied on a weird sort of intuition about how far the car extended around me,
which made the car feel like a large, clumsy appendage. This was also like
playing a game in a funny way. When I drove the car, as when I played Bionic
Commando (1987), I had a sense that thing I was controlling was an extension of
my body. This was the experience of game feel as an extension of the senses.”
This lets the player feel like they are inside the game world, and this allows game designers
to let the player feel like what the avatar goes through, they go through. It also allows for
situations to have a variety of possible emotions, depending on who is playing the game, or
at what point in the game they encounter it. Grodal (2000) compares the emotional
experience of a film vs a video game:
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“The emotional experience of a given situation will consequently be different
according to whether it is cued by a film or by a video game. When viewing a film
the labeling of the emotions felt is determined by the viewer’s passive
appreciation of the film characters coping potentials. But when the situation is
part of a video game, it is the player’s assessment of his own coping potentials
that determines the emotional experience. The unskilled player may feel despair
when confronted with the lion, but the skilled player will fuel the arousal into a
series of courageous actions. Video games therefore simulate emotions in a
form that is a closer to typical real-life experiences than film: Emotions are
motivators for actions and are labeled according to the player’s active coping
This makes the emotions a lot more personal, albeit a lot harder for the designer to control,
but it all contributes to an experience that feels a lot more real than what film can achieve,
because the emotions are felt first hand, rather than second hand for a separate character.
I will look more into the avatar and what it brings to the table when I talk about the unique
tools that games have.
Interactivity is a term that can mean a lot. I will use the term to describe actions the player
can do in games. Anything that involves input from the player, be it button commands for
combos in a fighting game, picking up an object and inspecting it by rotating it, or even
simply moving a character around a 3d space. Input from the player that the game can react
to is what I define interactivity as.
Interactivity is at the heart of what makes games games. A movie will play to the end even if
no one is even present in the room. A game however, requires input of some kind to play
out. This makes playing games active media consumption. This changes the body’s
reactions to playing games compared to film, so much so that it has a significant effect on
sleep if consumed before bedtime. In a study for the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine
(2010), playing video games was compared to watching DVDs before sleep. It found a clear
relation between bigger SOL (Sleep Onset Latency) for video gaming compared to watching
DVDs, which they write appears to be due to cognitive alertness.
The amount of cognitive alertness will no doubt differ depending on the game, but common
to most is that there is some level of challenge to overcome. A lot of games will even prevent
you from seeing the end if you are not skilled enough at the interactivity it allows you. Games
demand the player’s attention and involvement in what is going on, and that can be used
very effectively to evoke emotions.
Dramatic Agency
Dramatic agency (Murray, 2005) is when the player has significant agency over story
elements. This is sadly not as common as I wish it was in games, but a lot of narratively
focused games have embraced this to varying extent. Whether this is a recurring thing in a
game, or if it’s a simple choice of which ending the player wants, I believe it’s an important
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difference that brings the player into the narrative, rather than subjecting them completely to
a film director’s choice. Atkins (2006) describes this very well:
“Video games prioritize the participation of the player as he or she plays,
and that player always apprehends the game as a matrix of future
possibility. The focus, always, is not on what is before us or the ‘what happens
next’ of traditionally unfolding narrative but on the ‘what happens next if I’
that places the player at the center of experience as its principle creator,
necessarily engaged in an imaginative act...”
This small change in mentality means a lot for what and how emotions can be evoked, as it
is no longer a film director who made these things happen, it was you. The player will feel a
lot more responsibility for what happens in the narrative, even if her actual influence is very
Now that I have specified some main differences between film and games in the context of
evoking emotions, I will look at what other people say on the subject of evoking emotions in
Evoking emotions in games
There are different opinions on what games should be and what their strengths are. In this
chapter I will look at some views on this and argue why I believe that this is not the direction
games should go. We already have movies and novels, and they each have their strengths
and weaknesses that they are working around. Games should realize their own strengths
and weaknesses and then work towards something that takes full advantage of those
strengths, instead of trying to copy the successes of movies and novels. This does not mean
that games should strive to have nothing in common with them however, but rather put the
focus elsewhere or use well established tools in conjunction with the strength of games to
create something unique. Steve Gaynor (2008) wrote about the strengths and weaknesses
of games:
“The player is an agent of chaos, making the medium ill-equipped to
convey a pre-authored narrative with anywhere near the effectiveness of
books or film.”
Gaynor writes that games are ill-equipped to convey pre-authored narratives, which I think is
correct to some extent, but what exactly are pre-authored narratives? Film and books are
very good at telling unisequential narratives, but neither of them are good at multisequential
narratives, as film and books usually go from start to end. Games can seamlessly
incorporate branching narrative that feels natural, which feels really awkward in film and
books. Multisequential narratives can be pre-authored, it just requires the author to think
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differently than usual. While the player is an agent of chaos, the player can be constrained to
predetermined actions with predetermined outcomes, which the author can work with and
make a narrative for. This is going to require more resources than creating a unisequential
narrative, but it has benefits of allowing the player dramatic agency, making the experience a
lot different from movies and novels. Dramatic agency is one of the unique tools I will write
about in the next chapter.
Katherine Isbister (2016) wrote a book about evoking emotions in video games called How
Games Move Us
. It has a lot of interesting ideas about the subject, but I think game
developers should be careful in what they take out of it. Isbister writes:
“In 2008, a student (Corey Nolan) and I surveyed a range of players on what
moments in games had actually made them cry… The most frequently cited
moments involved the death of NPCs with whom players had spent considerable
time during gameplay. Players wept over losing valued and trustworthy
The number one example from that survey was from Planetfall
(1983), a text based
adventure game, which had a very likable character, Floyd, who died at the end of the game.
Death of well written characters evokes emotion, no matter the medium. Floyd’s death is no
doubt a powerful moment, but it does not hold up to today’s standards. The game was
released in 1983, where the limitations of the medium were a lot bigger than they are today.
We have a lot more to work with now beyond interactive text narratives, and we should aim
higher. Floyd’s death was very notable at its time, because he helped the player, and the
player developed a relationship to Floyd. It uses a basic version of the tool “Transfer of
Identity”, which I will detail further in next chapter.
Isbister also writes about a game for the Nintendo DS, LovePlus
(2009), which has the
player choose between 3 girls to attempt to date. The game simulates dating in highschool,
putting the player in the shoes of a student at the same highschool as the 3 girls. Isbister
writes about the dating experience in the game:
“the player gets to take part in this process, thanks to the game’s artful use of
NPCs and the human brain’s experience of intimacy as it emerges from the small
actions and reactions of everyday interaction between sweethearts. This
experience can feel so real, in fact, that some players seem to prefer it to
flesh-and-blood romance. In 2009, a LovePlus player went to Guam and officially
married Nene, one of the three girls in the game.”
Like with the experience in Planetfall
puts the player into the story in a similar
fashion. Isbister briefly mentions some of the interactions, but doesn’t go into detail. Instead
she uses the LovePlus
player marrying one of the characters as a sign of the game’s
success. While I agree that the game has done well at reaching its goal, I think it deserves a
deeper dive into why it works, and what makes it different from its closest relatives, anime
and manga.
Astrid Knappmann
Having feelings for fictional characters is far from unique to games. The term “Waifu” has
been used years before the release of LovePlus
, mainly being used in anime relations. writes about the term:
“Anime fans began using waifu to refer to a character they were particularly fond
of, one they viewed as being special to them. The earliest Urban Dictionary entry
for this use of the word dates from 2007, and there’s evidence that the term
dates back in its anime sense to at least 2006...In anime and related otaku
culture, waifu can be used with varying levels of intensity...Some fans might
casually call their favorite female character in a game or anime their waifu. But
others are more earnest about it, viewing their waifu as a part of their life. For
these people, their feelings, even though they’re well aware the character is
fictional, are serious.”
Having serious feelings for fictional characters is a real thing and not just a one off
occurrence. While the marriage to a LovePlus
character might be the first occurrence of
marrying a fictional character, it is not the only one. Lee Jin-gyu from Korea has married a
bodypillow, which is a human sized pillow with a picture of a fictional character on it. His
bodypillow resembles a character from the anime show Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
, and
although it happened shortly after the LovePlus
marriage, it is not just an answer to that. His
friends got interviewed by the media around the time of the marriage saying:
“‘He is completely obsessed with this pillow and takes it everywhere,’ said one
friend. ‘They go out to the park or the funfair where it will go on all the rides with
him. Then when he goes out to eat he takes it with him and it gets its own seat
and its own meal,’ they added.”
I’m not going to start comparing how much fictional characters can be loved depending on
the medium they’re presented in, but one interesting thing to take from it is what the friends
say that Lee Jin-gyu did with his beloved. Having feelings for a character from a non
interactive medium is going to keep the watcher/reader out of it. It’s going to be like watching
your crush go out with someone else, and no matter what you do, you cannot take part in
whatever the character is doing. The affection some people feel for these fictional characters
cannot be expressed to a character on a screen that cannot be interacted with. This is why
Lee Jin-gyu married a body pillow with the character on it, because that allows some
interaction, although the body pillow cannot give any feedback to the interactions, it is the
closest you can get to an anime character.
An interactive medium like games allows some of the interactions desired, and allows the
character to reciprocate the feelings. Games allow the player to interact in certain ways that
can help the experience feeling real, whether that is love, taking care of someone or even
brutally murdering people in games like God of War
(2005). I will write more about how
interactions can be used to evoke emotions in the next chapter.
Astrid Knappmann
What unique tools exist?
Having looked at what others write about evoking emotions in games, and focusing on the
traits that are unique to video games, I have come up with a list of tools that games can
utilize to evoke emotions in a unique fashion.
Transfer of Identity
Dramatic Agency
Simulated Actions
Interactive Discomfort
Each of these can be used separately, but can also be used in conjunction with each other
to create an experience that is significantly different than what passive media can create. I
will describe each of them and provide examples for how they’re used. When I have written
about all of them, I will look at a selection of games that are known for evoking emotion and
find out which tools they use and how. First I will look at one of the core abilities of games,
Transfer of Identity.
Transfer of Identity
Transfer of identity is a term that Swink used in his book Game Feel (2008). Transfer of
identity is when a human transfers their identity to encompass something outside their body.
Just like how Swink’s car was part of his identity when he crashed it. This is often used when
using tools in some way. Jerry Kelly (2001) writes about how to be a good striker in baseball:
“It’s feeling the fat part of the bat as an extension of your hands, knowing where
that bat-head is in the same way that you know where your fingers are, or the
point of your chin - thoughtlessly.”
Here he is talking about transferring his identity to encompass the baseball bat. It becomes
part of his body and in turn, part of him. The same concept can work in games if designed
for it. An avatar is often used for the player to transfer her identity to. This can be a
representation of a human, but just like a baseball player can encompass a bat and a driver
can encompass a car, so too can a player encompass other objects into their identity.
Playing FlatOut 2 (2006) the player will transfer her identity to encompass the car, rather
than the little human driver sitting inside. This is because the player is in direct control of the
car, while the actual driver is merely decoration, a tool for making crashes feel better and
more fun when you see the driver flying out the window.
The key to transfer of identity is control. This means that any object, real or abstract, can
become part of the player's identity, whether it’s an unexplained invisible spirit that’s being
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controlled in first person, or if it’s a piece of toast, the player will extend her identity to
encompass it if the controls are right. Swink (2008) describes it:
“Extension of identity isn’t something you can design for directly. It grows
naturally out of real-time control, and it can be disrupted by too much frustration,
boredom or ambiguity between intent and outcome. It can also happen to greater
or lesser degrees depending on the sensitivity of control.”
He writes that it’s not something that can be designed for directly, but I think it’s a wrong
statement to make. While a designer can never force a player to feel or think a certain way,
they can design an experience that is expected to have a certain result. Having a helpful
character like Floyd from Planetfall end up sacrificing himself for the player can be expected
to evoke sadness in the player. There’s a million potential reasons for why any given player
may not feel sad from the experience, but that doesn’t mean that designers should give up
trying to create powerful emotional experiences altogether.
In the same quote Swink describes what leads to extension of identity as concrete things
that can be designed for. While it’s never going to be completely given that a player will
transfer her identity to an intended object, a designer can do a lot to maximize the effects of
it. Real time control, direct relation between intent and outcome and sensitive controls are all
contributors to this state of identity.
Real time control here is when you have direct control of something in real time. When the
control is turn based, the transfer of identity does not happen as readily, because it becomes
more like the player is a controller of objects, like moving pieces on a chess board, rather
than being the object herself. When control is not direct, a similar thing happens. Point and
click controls can be in real time, but because the player issues orders rather than completes
the action herself, the transfer of identity doesn’t happen in the same way.
Intent and outcome should be conjoined to keep a strong sense of identity. This can
materialize in different ways and is most noticeable when intent and outcome are not in line.
Narratively focused games often rely on the player transferring identity to the main character,
but this feeling of identity can be broken immediately if a dialogue option turns out to be
different from what the player expected it to be. She wanted to say one thing, but the
character says and acts in a different way. A user on Giantbomb’s forum describes their
experience with the dialogue wheel from Dragon Age II
“With the wheel, I feel like I'm suggesting things for Hawke to say, but Hawke
just decides ‘ok well this is what you meant right?’ Hawke is always going to be
Hawke, just with a different temper, and a different opinion on what to do with
This can alienate the player and may break the bond that held her together with the
character, because it now feels as if the character is acting on their own accord. To a lesser
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extent, the same can happen with controls. Everyone who has played Super Mario 64 (1996)
has tried running up to a pit with the intent of long jumping over it, but accidentally pressing
the buttons in the wrong order, which makes Mario jump slightly, then ground pound straight
into the pit. While it is a hilarious experience the first time, it does damage the feeling of
identity because intent and outcome were two very different things, and for every
consecutive time this happens, the damage becomes greater as it is now accompanied by
frustration. This means that a skilled player and a less skilled player will have different
experiences of transfer of identity. The skilled player will rarely mess up Mario’s long jump,
retaining the transfer of identity effect regardless of the difficult controls. A player who is new
to the game and maybe new to playing games in general, will mess up the long jump a lot
more and are at risk of losing the effects of transfer of identity.
One way to diminish this problem is to make the controls easy, but that itself has its own
downsides. The skilled player may get bored quickly, due to the lack of the aesthetic
pleasure of mastering a skill. Super Mario 64
’s level design brilliantly allows both the skilled
and the new player to feel engaged without too much frustration based on controls. It does
that by having levels that are completable with only using the basic jump. Even the last level
can be completed without using any of the more advanced jumps at Mario’s disposal. This
allows the less skilled player to play without having to use the difficult jumps, which in turn
eliminates much of the risk of ruining the transfer of identity due to difficult controls. The
skilled player will use the advanced jumps in creative ways to skip parts of the level, staying
sufficiently challenged.
Tekken 3 (1998) solves the problem in a similar fashion. The control scheme is simple.
There’s 4 buttons on the Playstation controller that are associated with a limb each. The less
skilled player can have the intent of kicking, and can easily get that outcome by pressing one
of the two buttons associated with the legs. The skilled player will instead think in combos,
requiring a combination of button presses timed correctly, that differ from character to
character. The game can be played through without ever getting past the intent of simply
wanting to kick the other guy in the face and pressing a kick button repeatedly. While the
skilled player will fare better, both of them can still enjoy the game and keep the feeling of
transfer of identity, because the controls allow for both new and skilled players.
Sensitive controls are important for the transfer of identity as well. If we look at Wolfenstein
3D (1992), we have a game where the player can move around freely in a 3D space. It is not
possible to move vertically in any way, not even jumping, but this is not a big detriment
because the levels are designed in such a way that the player most likely won’t even be
thinking about moving vertically in the very flat levels. The controls were made primarily for a
keyboard, so the controls were limited to binary values of key presses. Turning left or right
was done with the arrow keys, and due to the nature of the keyboard as a controller, the
character would turn in the chosen direction at a set speed when the key was pressed down,
then stop turning once the key is let go of. This constrained way of controlling the character
holds back the transfer of identity effect. If the character’s rotation was controlled using an
analog stick, the player would have a way more agency over how fast the character rotates,
making the controls more sensitive and leading to a more effective transfer of identity. To go
even further than analog sticks, Wolfenstein: The New Order
(2014) uses the mouse as the
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input for rotation, which gives the player much more control. The mouse is an incredibly
sensitive input device, as it is linked directly to how fast the player moves her hand in a
two-dimensional plane. This maximizes the potential of transfer of identity’s effect from
sensitive controls. The mouse as an input device has some limitations however, and should
not blindly be used wherever possible. The possible movement of the mouse is usually
limited to a relatively small area (a mousepad), so it is not suitable for consistent movement
to one side. What control scheme will work best depends on what it is for, but to get the best
effect from transfer of identity, the designer should aim to give the player sensitive controls
with as much freedom as possible.
Transfer of Identity has several benefits for evoking emotions. Since the player has
transferred her identity to include the object she is controlling in the game, that object
becomes a link to her. Things happening to that object are now experienced differently than
if the transfer of identity was not present. Swink (2008) writes:
“The extending of identity also gives a player the sensation of direct physical
contact. It’s a muted sensation—getting hit with a rocket in Quake
(1996) is, one
assumes, not the sensation of being hit with one in real life—but intimate
nonetheless. When I’m bumped, jostled, flung or impaled, it feels bad because
it’s as though it’s happening to me physically. It’s the same sensation I had
hitting a pole in my parents Volvo; it’s not literally painful, but it feels like a
personal injury. Likewise, when I’m grabbing, throwing, slashing or hitting, it feels
good because I’m reaching into the game and affecting things directly with a part
of my extended virtual body...Through a combination of polish and simulation,
the designer can have players feeling they’ve hit or been hit, shaping those
interactions with great precision.”
With transfer of identity everything the player does in the game feels as if she was doing it
herself. This has myriads of applications for evoking emotion, and transfer of identity is
present in many games in varying degrees. It is often used together with other tools to
accentuate their effects. In Outlast 2 (2017) the player has transferred her identity to Blake
Langermann, the character that she controls throughout the game. The transfer of identity is
strong because of the sensitive real time controls, without control ambiguity. With the
player's identity transferred to Blake, the designers now have the opportunity to evoke
emotions effectively. During a cutscene Blake gets caught by some cultists who look
disgusting and repulsive. One of the cultists stabs his own hand, and force feeds the blood
to Blake. This is a really uncomfortable scene, made even more uncomfortable because the
player has transferred her identity to Blake, so it feels like it is done to her. Shortly thereafter
it is taken to the next level. Blake is getting crucified by the cultists. The great sound design
and visual polish makes this particular scene really difficult to go through for many players,
as can be seen from ChristopherOdd’s (2017) playthrough of this scene. When he realizes
that the cultist is about to force feed him blood, he cries out “noo”, followed by sounds of
disgust. When the first nail is hammered into his hand, he stops a sentence halfway through
and groans. After the second hand is nailed to the cross, he says it is unbearable.
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This cutscene would not be the same if the player had not been playing the game for a while
and gained the effects of transfer of identity, but transfer of identity can be used in many
more ways, one of which is the next tool on my list.
Dramatic Agency
I will use J. Murray’s description of the term, as she uses it in her book Inventing The
“The experience of agency within a procedural and participatory environment
that makes use of compelling story elements, such as an adventure game or a
interactive narrative. To create dramatic agency the designer must create
transparent interaction conventions (like clicking on the image of a garment to
put it on the player’s avatar) and map them onto actions which suggest rich
story possibilities (like donning a magic cloak and suddenly becoming invisible)
within clear story stories with dramatically focused episodes (such as, an
opportunity to spy on enemy conspirators in a fantasy role playing game).”
Dramatic agency is one of the unique tools the video games medium allows, which
conventional books and film do not. Some books allow for dramatic agency, such as The
Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982), but the limitations of the medium takes away from the
experience. Dramatic agency benefits a lot from transfer of identity, but looking at how to
achieve transfer of identity, it is not easy to do in book format. Netflix has produced an
interactive movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,
which incorporates dramatic agency by having
the watcher choose between 2 options at set points in the movie. This has the same
difficulties achieving transfer of identity as it is simply presenting choices for the watcher.
Detroit: Become Human (2018) is an interactive experience taking dramatic agency to the
extreme. The lines between what is a game and what is not becomes blurry when it comes
to interactive narratives, but Detroit: Become Human lets the player take direct control of the
characters outside of scripted cutscenes, making transfer of identity a lot easier to
accomplish. I won’t get into the discussion of exactly what it takes to be considered a game
or an interactive movie, instead I will focus on experiences with dramatic agency where
transfer of identity has strong potential, such as Detroit: Become Human
Dramatic agency coupled with transfer of identity gains some unique possibilities. Will Wright
(2006) said:
“People talk about how games don’t have the emotional impact of movies. I think
they do—they just have a different palette. I never felt pride, or guilt, watching a
Movies and novels can evoke those emotions, but it is done in a different way. The narrative
subgenre “Whodunit”, with works such as Murder on the Orient Express (1934), is all about
engaging the reader/watcher and letting them be part of a crime investigation. The crime and
the clues are presented in such a way that the reader/watcher gets a chance to deduce who
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the culprit is, before the big reveal when the protagonist puts together all the clues and
reveals who the culprit is. This allows the reader/watcher to feel like a crime detective
themselves, and when they manage to guess who the culprit is, they feel pride. Proud of
being as good at deducing and analysing clues as the protagonist.
Guilt can also be evoked, like in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) where
Snape is portrayed as evil in the beginning. Hermione catches Snape in casting a spell while
Harry’s broom is acting up, so she, and the viewer, believes Snape is the culprit. This scene
is set up so that the viewer will despise Snape, so that when it is revealed later that Snape
was actually saving Harry from the real culprit, then Hermione, and potentially the viewer,
feel guilty for blaming Snape earlier.
While these experiences can be really powerful and fulfilling, those specific emotions can
work differently when evoked using dramatic agency together with transfer of identity. Life is
Strange (2015) is a narratively focused game where the player takes control of Max, and she
is presented with explicit and implicit choices that have a meaningful impact on the narrative.
The player controls Max in real time with good controls, so the transfer of identity is strong.
The game explicitly states that all the player’s actions have consequences and will impact
the past, present and the future. This is not an entirely honest statement, as it implies that
the player has more narrative control than what she really has. It is a really important
statement however, because it makes the player feel like she has dramatic agency even
when she does not. This is useful because the more dramatic agency the player has, the
more content has to be made, and if not treated carefully the workload will get out of control.
There are ways of working around this, one of which is to make each choice a small
deviation from each other, and then converge shortly after. One such example is in the
interactive movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
, where the protagonist is offered a drug. The
narrative requires the drug to be taken, so if the watcher refuses, it will be put into his drink
while he is not looking. Those who chose to refuse the drug may have felt cheated, but those
who chose to take the drug would feel a great sense of dramatic agency, and wonder what
would have happened if they did not take it. Twitter user @TCEL_Danzter chose not to take
the drugs, and his reaction to having them slipped into his drink anyway, was posting a
picture saying “Am I a joke to you?” . He felt let down by the choice having no influence at
all. Another twitter user replied to the status saying
“ohh so this is what happens........ well i’m glad now that i wasn’t abstemious
with that decision haha”
This twitter user showed interest in what could have happened if she did not choose to take
the drug, because she also expected it to be a meaningful choice. This kind of choice works
well if the designer’s desired path is chosen, but it can be really bad if the other option is
chosen. This has to be done carefully, as the illusion of having great dramatic agency will be
broken if this happens often. Thankfully there are tricks to mitigate the amount of players
who will choose what the designer does not want. K. and J. Tanenbaum (2009) wrote a
paper about agency in which they write:
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“... a recent study by Roberts et al (2009) looked at using principles of
Influence Theory from social psychology as a way of guiding player behavior in
an interactive narrative. By adding carefully crafted influence statements to
the story, the authors were able to increase the number of people who
selected one specific action over another. Crucially, in the post-study
questionnaire, players who got the control story and players treated with the
influenced stories showed no differences in terms of reported agency or
feelings of manipulation. Despite having their actions manipulated and
controlled in this way, their engagement with the story and their own
commitment and feeling of agency was unaffected.”
Using Influence Theory the designer can guide the player in a certain direction. Influencing
players may have significant results, but ultimately the decision is made by the player, so no
matter how much influencing the designer does, they should always be prepared for
handling the players who choose the undesired path. Bandersnatch uses various techniques
of social influence to make the watcher choose the paths that the designer wants for a lot of
the choices, and then leaving the big choices open with significant variation depending on
the choice. The scene with the drug mentioned earlier has a respected character that the
protagonist looks up to, be the one to offer the drug. That character also uses peer pressure
to further influence the watcher into choosing the desired path, taking the drug.
Bandersnatch has a relatively good way of handling those who choose the undesired path of
refusing the drug, by having them take the drug involuntarily when it is slipped into the
protagonist’s drink.
Bandersnatch makes use of these kinds of choices a lot, and not every undesired path is
saved as gracefully. One scene has the protagonist talk to a psychologist, who wants to talk
about the protagonist’s mother. This is a choice, which is peer pressured like the other one,
but if the watcher still takes the undesired path, there is no graceful way of continuing on for
good. There is a considerable amount of content that requires you to talk about the mother,
so once the narrative gets to a point where you cannot go further without the mother scene,
it brings you back in time so you can change your choice. This way of reversing back in time
to change a choice greatly reduces the effect of dramatic agency. Once this feeling of not
having any dramatic agency sets in, it’s difficult to get the watcher/player out of that state of
mind and feel like they have agency again. It’s better to not have a choice at all if the
watcher/player will be forced to choose a specific option, with no tangible effects to the other
options, like opting out of talking about the mother. Since there is a choice, the
watcher/player expects the choice to matter in some way, and when it turns out that her
choice did not matter at all, she will feel disappointed and like she is not in control, much like
the twitter user did when his choice of refusing the drug had no narrative significance. With
this particular scene however it is worse, because the choice seems to be put in just to have
a choice for the sake of it, destroying the watcher’s expectation of choices mattering.
Portnow et al from Extra Credits (2013) calls this Negative Possibility Space. It does not take
much effort to prevent negative possibility space, but the effects can be very harmful if left
unattended. They say:
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“Look at The Walking Dead (2012), Telltale designers would generally pick a few
sweeping choices early in each chapter and make the consequences to those
choices abundantly clear form the get go to establish the idea that your choices
mattered, which led you to as a player to assume that any decision you made
would have an impact, even if many of them didn’t. On top of that, when the
player was making a narrative decision, the designers would often have small
messages pop up, like ‘Clementine will remember this’, thus, fulfilling that
expectation, filling that Negative Possibility Space in the player’s mind, even if
the choice being made really did nothing other than make that message appear
on screen.”
Like Life is Strange
,The Walking Dead ensures that the player believes that every choice
matters, and once that illusion is set up, even small acknowledgements of the player's
choice is enough to keep it up. The messages popping up when an action or choice has
occurred, serve as instant gratification. This is especially useful in situations where the
choice doesn’t have a big immediate effect, as the player might feel it as Negative Possibility
Space if nothing happens at all for a while. While it is important to fulfill the player’s
expectation, a powerful technique to make the player feel great dramatic agency, is to take a
seemingly inconsequential choice and make it have significant consequences.
In Life is Strange 2
, you play as the big brother, taking care of his younger brother. You’re on
the run, and food is scarce. You come across a deserted car, which has your brothers
favourite chocolate bar laying in the window. It looks like you can reach it through the
window. Do you take it and give it to your brother, who is hungry and clearly not feeling good
from the long travel? The car looks like it hasn’t been touched in days, and you need the
food way more than they do. Will they even notice that a chocolate bar is missing, if
someone is even coming back in the first place? The consequences seem like they have low
probability and low impact, and you really want to make your brother happy. Taking that
chocolate bar will come back to haunt you later however, in a much worse way than most
anticipated. If you chose to steal the chocolate bar, your brother will think that stealing things
is okay, so he steals from someone who has helped you a lot along your journey. This in
itself is potentially a really strong emotional moment in the game, but it serves a dual
purpose. The player is now constantly on edge, because she knows that every single
decision she makes can end up having much graver consequences than she can predict.
This single consequence to a choice will give the player a great feeling of dramatic agency,
because it proves that even the small things she does matters, even if it is relatively
inconsequential for the overall narrative, these things matter a lot when it comes to the
feeling of dramatic agency.
Seeing your little brother steal, because you taught him it was okay, intentionally or not, can
evoke the feeling of guilt. One very effective recipe for evoking this emotion is transfer of
identity together with dramatic agency. Cambridge dictionary describes guilt as:
“A feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done
something wrong, such as causing harm to another person”
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The watcher of Harry Potter may feel guilt when blaming Snape wrongly, but no matter how
much you think badly of Snape, nothing you do will ever cause harm or affect him at all. The
fact that you cannot reach into the story and make Snape feel you blaming him, puts a limit
to how strong the emotion of guilt can be. With dramatic agency the player can directly affect
the feelings, albeit virtual, of the other characters in the story, and with transfer of identity the
player can feel responsible for it. If we go back to the first Life is Strange game, there is a
scene that can really effectively evoke both guilt or pride, depending on the player’s skills
and previous decisions. Kate is a character who Max (the player) goes to school with. She is
struggling with some things and has people bully and harass her. Max and Kate are friends,
but how close they are depends on the player. If the player decides to check out Kate’s room
and talk to her, she will learn crucial facts for later. Kate calls Max at a really unlucky time,
and Max is peer pressured into not answering. All these things and more all lead up to the
big episode finale where Kate stands on a rooftop about to jump off. Max uses her time
powers to get up to the roof with her, but her powers are limited, she cannot use them to
save Kate. The player has to talk Kate out of jumping.
This is when earlier decisions matter. Everything the player has done for Kate is part of the
conversation, and if the player has neglected Kate earlier, or isn’t good enough at talking her
down, Kate will jump off the rooftop and successfully commit suicide. If the player has been
there for her and remembers what is important for Kate, then she can talk her down and
save her. Through clever dialogue writing the designers can evoke a strong feeling of guilt if
the player has neglected Kate. Kate is depressed over not mattering to anyone, and if the
player tries to convince her otherwise, she will remind her of that time where she did not pick
up the phone. Only then is it clear how important that phone call was, and that can evoke a
really strong sense of guilt and regret in the player, because she succumbed to mere peer
pressure, which hurt Kate so badly that she is about to commit suicide. It is made clear to
the player how every little action she did has hurt Kate, and the player has no one to blame
but herself. The game will keep reminding the player about Kate’s suicide afterwards. With
many conversations about it and memorials for her passing. A constant reminder to how the
player failed her friend. To make everything worse, the game shows statistics after each
episode showing how many people managed to save Kate, and how many who did not. This
does not just serve as anonymous shaming, it also serves as a message to the player. You
could have saved her. Similarly, if the player does manage to successfully talk Kate down,
she is saved. Instead of guilt, this can evoke a strong feeling of pride. The clever dialogue
writing makes sure to acknowledge every good thing the player has done for Kate, which
makes it clear to the player that Kate was saved because of her actions. Just like with Kate’s
suicide, her rescue is kept fresh in the player’s memory by conversations and even a scene
where Max visits Kate in the hospital.
This way of evoking pride and guilt is really well suited for games. One strong point of
dramatic agency is that the player can feel responsible for how the narrative pans out. This
feeling of being responsible is what allows such strong feelings of guilt and pride. I asked my
girlfriend to play Life is Strange while I watched. I didn’t tell her why or give her any other
instructions other than to play it. While she was playing one of the more emotional parts of
the game, she exclaimed “What have I done?”. She was feeling guilty of how the narrative
panned out. She wasn’t actually to blame, as it was a predetermined section of the game.
She did not know that however, and she believed it was her own doing because of how the
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game made sure to let her know that her actions had consequences. Exactly what is
predetermined and what is not becomes unclear when there is no Negative Possibility Space
and the game has a lot of dramatic agency. This leads to the player feeling responsible for
the actions of whatever character or object she has transferred her identity to, even if those
actions are unavoidable.
This feeling of being responsible has some interesting effects. When Brooke Leigh Thorne
(2015) played Life is Strange
she got very emotional during a section of the game where
Max has gone back in the past to change one thing, which led to her best friend ending up in
a wheelchair. This is a predetermined section of the game that you get to no matter what,
but she did not know that, and blames herself for putting her friend in a wheelchair. After
spending some time with her friends, Max is asked to give her an overdose of morphine, to
help her commit suicide. This is a choice that the player has to choose between, but due to
the nature of the game and Max’s time travel abilities, the player can try both options before
deciding on which one to go for. Thorne starts out by choosing the option of not helping her,
and she expresses curiosity about what happens if you choose to help her overdose, so she
time travels back to the point of choosing. She considers it for a few seconds, before she
declares that she cannot get herself to do it. Even while knowing that she could go back and
choose not to help, the thought of helping her friend commit suicide was too much for her.
Her feelings of guilt and sorrow outweighed her curiosity. She simply cannot get herself to be
responsible for her friend’s death.
Dramatic agency can be used really effectively together with transfer of identity to evoke
emotions differently than conventional movies and novels. Through clever design the
designer can make the player feel responsible for way more than she really was, which can
give a rich experience without too many resources spent on wildly varying branching paths.
Simulated Actions
Simulated actions are when interactivity goes beyond just being functional user interface.
The controls can be designed in such a way that it evokes emotions, if connected to a fitting
action. It is often done by imitating the use of physical objects, so that the controls have a
resemblance to how the action is in real life, but more generally it is simulating reality. Grodal
(2000) writes about the effects that game-world-generated time (time passes regardless of
player actions) has on the player’s experience:
“Game-world-generated time provides other gratifications because it evokes
much stronger emotions. The problems need to be solved under severe time
constraints similar to those in emotional peak situations in real life. The player
has to integrate perceptions, cognitions, emotions, and actions fast in order to
survive and is provided with a strong feeling of interaction. The closer a game
experience gets to the player’s optimal mental and motor capacity, the less
capacity is available for being conscious about the game being just a game: the
game provides total immersion.”
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A time constraint, direct or indirect, will help evoke strong emotions and keep the player
immersed in the game. The indirect time constraints can be things like enemies acting in real
time. When you start a game of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010), there is no timer
counting down, but you know that you need to act, because the enemy is increasing their
army for every minute that passes by. This creates a very tense gaming experience that can
be fatiguing. One user on the Blizzard forums wrote about his experience with the
multiplayer part of StarCraft II
“First off i know I sound really fat right now but does anyone else feel exhausted
when playing for about 5-7 games? Whenever i play call of duty i can sit on my
ass and game all day but when i play Sc2 i feel very tired and drained.”
This exhaustion comes from the constant mental activity from playing the game, as the
game works exclusively with game world generated time, the player never gets a chance to
rest while a game is going on. So it can be beneficial to have some moments that are time
constrained and some that are not. The user mentions Call of Duty as a game that is not as
tiring, while it is also game world generated time, your objectives do not have a time
constraint in the same fashion that Starcraft II games have. In Call of Duty there is downtime
regularly, where the player doesn’t have to be at peak mental capacity, such as when she
has died and is waiting for respawning, or while running in perceived safe areas.
(early access 2014) has a mix between game world generated time and player
generated time (time passes based on player actions). The enemies are slowly evolving over
time and will send attack waves toward the player occasionally, which puts the player on the
spot. She knows she has to act and advance her technology so she can deal with their
attacks. The evolution of the enemies is very slow by itself, so if the player takes a few
minutes to relax, it’s not a big deal, which makes the game experience a lot less tense than
. Instead the enemies evolve faster based on what the player does. This also
functions as a way of balancing play for experienced and inexperienced players, all while
making the player feel that time passes like in real life and that time cannot be wasted,
making the experience feel very real.
The Walking Dead (2012) has two kinds of gameplay. There’s some parts that allow you to
walk around and explore and inspect your surroundings, as well as have conversations with
everyone around. These sections are usually using player generated time, giving the player
as much time as she wants. This serves as a place for the player to relax after the more
intense parts of the game. The Walking Dead has very stressful and emotional scenes
where the player has to make tough decisions. These stressful scenes only work because
the designers have put a time limit on the player’s decision making time. The time constraint
itself adds a lot to the stressful feeling of the game, but because the decisions you have to
take are never easy, and often has many potential consequences that can be difficult to
process in the short time you have to decide, the experience becomes super stressful. The
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experience also becomes very immersive, because the way it works is very similar to real
life, and the player’s mental capacity is being spent entirely on considering the choices.
Imitating the use of physical objects is another way of simulating actions. This can be done
in many ways, that all depend on the situation and the object which you are imitating the use
of. It depends a lot on the controller the player is using as well, and some controllers are built
solely for this purpose, such as flight sticks or steering wheels. The purpose of this way of
controlling is to get one step closer to reality, which helps evoke stronger and more real
emotions. Nintendo has had a lot of focus on this particular tool to evoke emotions. The Wii
was released with a specific set of controllers using motion sensing technology, to allow
developers much more freedom when designing their control scheme for the purpose of
imitating the use of physical objects. Red Steel (2006) is a first person shooter game utilizing
the Wii’s controller, the wiimote, to have the player point at the screen with a crosshair, as if
aiming with a real gun. Due to technical limitations, the feeling wasn’t as lifelike as it could
have been, but it did give a different feel to aiming. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
(2006) also used the Wii Remote to imitate the use of a physical object, this time a sword.
The player has to swing her arm as if she was the one holding the sword. That was the idea
at least, but due to how fatiguing that is, many players would instead sit down and flick their
wrist instead to make Link swing his sword. This problem made the simulation lose it’s link to
the physical object, as flicking your wrist doesn’t feel like simulating swinging a sword. Link is
famously left handed as well, which did not work with the wiimote being used in the right
hand, so the entire game was mirrored for the Wii version, so that Link could use his right
hand as his sword hand. A lot of effort went into making this simulated action work, but
ultimately it ended up being ignored by many players.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
(2011) used the Wii Remote controller with the Wii
MotionPlus, which is an addon that increases the accuracy of the motion controls. This
meant that the player now had to swing to Wii Remote like intended, which worked well for
the feeling of simulated actions, but it made the game physically straining to play for longer
periods of time. A user on the GameFAQ forum explained he wanted a remake of Legend of
Zelda: Skyward Sword
“Skyward Sword, please.
It could benefit with an update. It was just too exhausting to play having to swing
the Wii Remote. In Twilight Princess for the Wii, you could get by with the Wii
Remote because you didn't have to swing it must, just a light shake. But Wii
Motion Plus made Skyward Sword a painful experience.”
Simulated actions is something that can easily end up being a detriment to the experience if
it is not done well, but when it is done well, it can add a lot. In an article for The Verge, A.
Webster wrote about his experience of playing Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! (2018) with his
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“Many of the features that seemed to me like forgettable add-ons are the ones
she treasures most in particular, the ability to use the motion controls or the
touchscreen to feed and pet her new Pikachu buddy, which has provided a lot of
The designers of Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!
have done really well with the feature of
playing with your pokémon. The polish is great, with Pikachu showing its appreciation clearly
when you pet it and hearts flying out when you do it. If the game is played in handheld mode
on the Switch, then petting Pikachu can feel very real because of the controls simulating the
real world action of petting. You pet Pikachu like you would pet any tiny mouse. Put your
finger on a spot it likes being petted on and then move your finger around. Pikachu’s instant
feedback to your petting makes the experience feel very real.
Another way of using simulated actions is to use the controls to simulate the actions a little
more abstractly. In God of War
(2005) you take control of Kratos, a muscular spartan
warrior. He does not wear a shirt, so the player is very aware of how strong he is. Along his
journey, Kratos comes across some gates that can be opened. The animation for opening
these gates emphasizes how heavy they are. The game then simulates the action for the
player, not by simulating the actual physical movement of Kratos, but simulating what he
goes through, a physical struggle. This struggle is simulated by making the player press the
trigger buttons on the controller repeatedly as fast as possible. It is physically straining to
mash a button, so the player gets to feel a muted sensation of what Kratos goes through.
The God of War games have used this up until the eighth and latest installment as of this
thesis, simply called God of War (2018). It is by no means unique to the God of War
but it is occurring frequently in those games. So much so that C. Wood still mashes the
button in the latest game, even though it is not needed. He writes about his experience
“When grabbing that lower part of a heavy metal gate or wedging his fingers in
between the cracks of a stone door, he appears to struggle for some moments
before hurling those apertures open. I’m conditioned to assist with struggle. I’m    
not sure if it’s in earnest of getting the ingress opened more quickly, or a simple
desire not to fail in breaching whatever port Kratos is struggling with, but I  
always mash circle.”
Wood mentions how he sees the act of mashing the button as assisting Kratos with opening
the gate. This is one way that simulated actions can be used successfully to evoke emotions
by letting the player partake in whatever the avatar is going through. This has to be used
sparingly and with thought however, as mashing a button is not enjoyable in itself for many
players. Thief (2014) used the button mashing in a very similar way to God of War to open    
windows, but the reception to this design choice was not good. One user on the Steam
forums writes :
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“for what gameplay reason do the button mashing window opener exist? With
lockpicks there is often a patrolling guard, and how precise you lockpick decides
how fast you can get something opened. But openable windows are never near
any guards. And button mash as fast as you can doesn’t seem to make him open
the window any faster.
I would think that someone making a game would think to themself ‘how would
this feature serve the gameplay’?”
This user does not understand why the mashing is needed, and I think it comes down to two
main reasons. One being the fact that mashing the button does not actually speed up the
animation, so the player’s struggle is not directly linked to the action going on in the game
world. The second reason is that the animation and context is vastly different compared to
God of War’
s opening of gates. Opening a window has an animation that looks slightly
awkward, with the avatar slowly lifting it up slightly with a crowbar, before lifting it the rest of
the way with his hands. It does not look like it is a struggle to open, and you would expect
the window to be easy to open after the first time you used your crowbar on it, but that is not
the case. Every time you pass through a window, you have to struggle with the crowbar to lift
a small wooden window. It makes little sense that it is required to do, and even less sense
that the avatar is struggling with lifting up an unlocked window.
The mistake the designers of Thief did was to make the button mashing part of a seamless
loading screen. Opening a window has to be slow, because the game is loading during the
cutscene. This puts limitations on the speed of the animation, which does not work well with
this kind of simulated action. Instead of assisting the avatar with his struggle, the button
mashing has lost its intended purpose and seems to serve no purpose other than wasting
the player’s time.
The different effects of the same simulated action in God of War
and Thief,
indicates that the
simulated action has to be accompanied with other stimuli, such as visual or auditory to give
the action context. The motion of swinging the Wii Remote in The Legend of Zelda
is very
similar to the motion of playing the tennis minigame in Wii Sports
(2006), but the context
given by the visuals especially makes the experience different.
Brothers: A tale of Two Sons
(2013) and What Remains of Edith Finch
(2017) both have
interesting uses of simulated actions, which I will write about later in the thesis in their
respective sections.
Interactive Discomfort
Video games don’t have to be about fun. Like other media, video games can explore all
kinds of different emotions and experiences. Discomfort can be evoked in many different
ways, and while it sounds like a negative thing to evoke discomfort in players, it can be a
positive experience. K. Jørgensen wrote about uncomfortable game content and
transgression of player taste (2019), where she interviewed players about uncomfortable
experiences in video games. On the topic of discomfort being a negative or positive
experience, she wrote:
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“When discussing the difference between positive and negative senses of
discomfort, the respondents expressed that discomfort often is experienced as
positive if it feels meaningfully integrated into the specific context, either by
having a role in the narrative context or by providing new experiences or by
inviting reflection on game actions as well as on life in general. A sense of
meaningfulness is central to empathic engagement in the game fiction.”
The respondents emphasize how it should be a seamless part of the whole, and it should
make sense narratively. These conditions the respondents mentioned are very subjective, so
it is going to be difficult to fulfill them, and players are different, so there will always be a risk
that some do not get a positive experience out of it. Tomb Raider
(2013) continued the
series’ tradition of showing the death of Lara when the player messed up and died. The
graphics have improved a lot since Tomb Raider
(1996), which was the first game in the
series. There’s Youtube compilations of Lara’s deaths from the different games, but even
though the two games use the same concept, the reception of the death scenes are very
different. A compilation of deaths from Tomb Raider
(1996) by Foolish Banana (2013) has
this description:
“After a long let's play of the game, I thought it would be cool to do a bonus video
after beating the game. Lara Croft dies in many ways in the first Tomb Raider
game. It's hilarious seeing the many deaths of Lara Croft! XD”
Lara dies in gruesome ways in that video, but because the graphics are much more cartoony
than in the newer game, the deaths do not cause the discomfort that Tomb Raider (2013)
does. In a video of the deaths from that game, uploaded by youtube userXCV//(2013),
the discussion is very different. One user comments:
“Every time i play this game i really dont want lara to die seeing those death
This user is experiencing discomfort from those death scenes, which in turn makes them
want to avoid dying even more. The increase in graphic fidelity has made these scenes a lot
tougher to watch. The death scenes fit into the game seamlessly when you play, but some
people do not like these death scenes, now that the graphics have gotten so good that the
deaths seem realistic. Mark Brown (2018) wrote an article about the subject saying:
“Now, I’m not a prude. I’m down for protagonists’ violent death animations that
crop up in games like Dead Space 2
, where Isaac can be stabbed in the eye if
you balls up a particular minigame. And Resident Evil 4
, where Leon’s head can
be lopped clean off by a madman with a chainsaw.
And they’re horrible, and I’ll wince like the baby that I am, but they totally make
sense, and I wouldn’t call for them to be toned down. These are horror games,
after all, and they come from a lineage of horror movies where gruesome
violence and bloody giblets and organs flopping out all over the place are a
genre expectation.
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The Tomb Raider games, however, are far more action adventure and obviously
inspired by the Uncharted games games that don’t feel the need to show
Nathan Drake’s bloody corpse writhing in agony on a rusty spike after you screw
up a jump.”
While the death scenes fit into the game’s flow, Brown argues that they do not fit into the
game on a meta level. He argues that action adventure games should not have gruesome
death scenes. While I agree that it’s generally important for a game to meet a player’s
expectations, I do not agree that certain violence should be reserved to certain genres. The
game has a PEGI 18 rating, so the player has a fair warning, if violence or other adult rated
themes are a concern. The violent death scenes can cause discomfort, and like the youtube
user commented, it can cause the player to play more carefully, fearing death in a different
way than usual. With Transfer of Identity the death scenes can become really harsh to
watch, especially when they happen because of the player’s mistakes.
Brown argues in the same article that there are different ways of making players want to
avoid dying. He writes:
“No one wants to die in Dark Souls
, and every death is a kick in the gut. But not
because you see your character torn to pieces. In fact, deaths in the Souls
games are mostly bloodless affairs that simply see your hero slump down in
defeat. It’s because you’ve just lost loads of progress and are close to losing
loads of souls. That hurts way more than seeing a character’s esophagus get
friendly with a tree branch.”
Dying in Dark Souls (2011) does indeed hurt. It hurts because you lose progress and have to
redo the same content again. I personally quit playing Dark Souls because I did not enjoy
being punished by having to waste my time with doing a considerable amount of content
again, before I could get to the challenge I had to overcome. Dying felt bad. During my time
in the DADIU course in 2018, T. Howalt (2018) told us time and time again to make failing
fun. He said that life gives you a slap on the wrist every time you make a mistake, games
don’t need to do that. Make failing fun.
Dying in Dark Souls cannot be described as fun. It was such a hard slap on the wrist that I
decided it wasn’t worth my time. The death scenes in Tomb Raider
(2013) had a completely
different effect on me. When I got to a new area I was always curious about how I could die.
If I did an area well on my first attempt I would even consider dying on purpose, just to sate
my curiosity. Dying was maybe not fun, but it was interesting.
While I had a positive experience with the death scenes evoking some morbid curiosity, and
consequently making me feel guilty for causing suffering, some others like Brown did not
have a positive experience. Trying to evoke discomfort is risky, as it can have some harsh
consequences if it does not work out. Jørgensen (2019) writes:
Astrid Knappmann
“When the respondents find uncomfortable game experiences to be negative,
such experiences tend to create a sense of distancing. … the distance i address
here is a state created by a disruption that threatens to break the ability to
engage with the work. such provocations may alienate the player of a
videogame and prevent full involvement with the game.”
The distancing she talks about here is what would stop Transfer of Identity. The worst case
scenario is that the player completely stops engaging with the game by quitting and not
playing anymore, but even the distancing effect in itself can be very harmful for the rest of
the game. Transfer of Identity is crucial to boost the potential of the other tools to evoke
emotions, so designers have to be careful when designing for discomfort, if they rely on the
effects of Transfer of Identity.
The levels of discomfort that are tolerable depend on the player base, as well as the context
and the type. The player base consists of individuals with their own tolerance levels, but in
general there will be greater tolerance in a player base for a game like Outlast 2 compared
to the player base of Farmville
. The context is important as well, as players will play certain
games for the discomfort, like horror games, but they can react negatively if the discomfort
comes in a context they did not want, like Brown’s reaction to the death scenes in Tomb
The type of discomfort has a big impact on how it is experienced for the player. The death
scenes in Tomb Raider (2013) show Lara getting her throat impaled, which is a universal
way of evoking the emotion disgust (Curtis, V., & Biran, A. 2001). Disgust is one of six
emotions P. Ekman (1971) classified as basic universal emotions, yet it is rarely talked
about. J. A. Bopp (2015) did a study analyzing negative emotions evoked in games, leading
to positive experiences. Of the six basic emotions, disgust is the only one that is not
mentioned in any way. Instead, the players talked about sadness a lot, as an emotion that
leads to a positive experience. Bopp Writes:
“A variety of typically negatively valenced emotions were reported in our study,
with sadness as the most frequently mentioned emotion. Nevertheless, players
rated emotionally moving game experiences high on enjoyment and
appreciation. Moreover, not only did negatively valenced emotions and high
enjoyment ratings coexist, but experiencing emotions, as well as sad affect
significantly predicted enjoyment and appreciation. Taken together, this indicates
that players did value their experience not in spite of negative emotions, but
actually thanks to the game inspiring strong emotional reactions, including
Sadness seems to be a really useful emotion to evoke, as it is a lot more risk free than
disgust. Interactive Discomfort can help evoke sadness in different ways. Grand Theft Auto
(2013) has a controversial mission which forces the player to choose which instrument to
use to torture a man. A participant of Bopp’s (2015) study described the experience as:
Astrid Knappmann
“I really hated it and did not want to do it but the game didn’t leave the choice to
me. (...) It was really disturbing”
The study showed that these experiences can evoke anger or helplessness, depending on
how it is implemented. The interesting part of the Grand Theft Auto V mission is that the act
of torturing